What would you say if no one else could understand you?

Growing up I had a friend whose parents were non-native English speakers; whenever they wanted to hide the content of their conversation from us (for better or worse) they’d drop the English and switch to their first language. Whenever they did this, little red flags would go up for my friend and me.

The decision to use one language over another for bilingual speakers is known in the world of linguistics as “code-switching”. While many professionals suggest that the decision is often made without any conscious effort, there are also times when code-switching is a purposeful choice that allows you to communicate discretely by changing the language to one that only a few people around you can understand.


All of this brings us to the way we use language in Haiti.

For many of us, English is our first language and we naturally use it to communicate with the members of our group. While this doesn’t really qualify as “code-switching”, it has a similar effect on the non-English speaking people around us: arousing at least curiosity, if not suspicion over what we might be saying.

The same goes for any foreign language.

Just like my friend and I once wondered at his parents’ conversations, people around you are sure to be curious, and when language doesn’t provide any context, body language becomes a major factor in what we (perhaps unknowingly) communicate to those around us.

So, Idea #1:

Your body language is very important, even when you don’t think anyone is watching. People can read your reactions even if they can’t understand a word you’re saying. Speaking from experience (and some residual guilt) please be careful what your face reveals to those around you. Especially when encountering some of the harder aspects of life in Haiti.

Idea #2:

Whenever it is possible to do so, you should try to speak Creole. By doing this you avoid locking your hosts out of the conversation and you make those around you more comfortable.

Besides, this way when there’s laughter to be shared, everyone’s in on the joke and no one is left asking if perhaps they were somehow the cause of it.

Unless your Creole was the cause of it… In which case I’ve been there, and will probably be there again, but we were laughing together.

Please tell me I’m not the only one?

More on that next time zanmi m.

by Erin Nguyen on March 5, 2015

3 thoughts on “What would you say if no one else could understand you?

    1. Bonjou Wholeproduction! As an organization, our focus is on Haitian Creole. However, all of our staff have (independently) studied French at some point in their lives. Alors, oui, nous parlons français -> men nou vle plis moun pale kreyol!

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